Eric Walden: Is the Cavs coach racist or did he just misspeak?

Cleveland Cavaliers coach John Beilein talks with guards Collin Sexton (2) and Darius Garland (10) during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Detroit Pistons, Thursday, Jan. 9, 2020, in Detroit. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

Let’s preface everything that’s to come with this concession: I don’t personally know John Beilein, I’ve not yet had occasion to interact with him, and I certainly don’t know what’s in his heart.

And so, I can’t give you a definitive answer on whether he meant to call his team “a bunch of slugs” as opposed to “a bunch of thugs,” or not.

What can be said with some amount of certainty, however, is that explanation or not, apology or not, this is not immediately going away, and there will be some sort of fallout as a result.

A quick recap for those knew may have missed the news: A source told ESPN on Wednesday that, during a film session, the Cavs coach apparently interrupted a lengthy missive of criticisms with what was meant to be a compliment: that they were no longer playing like a bunch of thugs.

According to the ESPN report, the comment did not immediately “sink in” at the moment it was uttered, but that as players left the session, they were “stunned” at what was said and “increasingly disturbed” as the day went on.

For his part, the 66-year-old rookie coach subsequently claimed he simply misspoke, having intended to say the players were no longer playing like slugs, that he was pleased with their recent uptick in energy and enthusiasm. He claimed he was not even aware of the faux pas until one of his assistants brought it to his attention, at which point he began reaching out to players individually to clarify the situation.

There’s been a ton to unpack since.

Beilein acknowledged that yes, he is indeed aware of the racial connotations that are inevitable from an older white man referring to a group of mostly black younger men as “thugs,” but that again, he simply uttered the wrong word. He went on to say that, in addition to reaching out to players individually the day the incident occurred, he addressed them collectively at shootaround the next day to explain himself and smooth over any hurt feelings, and that, in his mind, he had been forgiven by his players.

It’s not pot-stirring, however, to wonder if that is universally true.

Beilein’s hiring this past offseason was considered a curious choice from the outset, given that not only is he considerably older than the average candidate, but also because his four-decade career in coaching had previously been limited to the college ranks, which is an altogether different animal than the NBA.

Ever since, there have been signs of strain between Beilein and his largely young roster. Some have apparently gone all Trey Lyles in their disdain for his allegedly overlong, college-style practices. Reports continue to emerge that he has already lost the locker room, that he is being tuned out by his young and impetuous charges.

TNT’s “Inside the NBA” crew spoke out strongly in the coach’s defense, with Shaquille O’Neal calling the Cavs players “soft” for being insulted by the word in question (which is silly); Kenny Smith dismissing the idea of racial overtones given the presence of non-black players on the roster (which s a stretch); and Charles Barkley insinuating that the story was leaked to the public by a disgruntled player as a means of smearing Beilein and trying to force him out (which … actually could have some merit to it?).

Meanwhile, ESPN talking head Stephen A. Smith and former player-turned-analyst Jay Williams engaged in a heated debate on whether the term “thug” is even demeaning, the former arguing there have been myriad players in league history who would have reveled in being bestowed such a label.

Whew. Lot going on there.

If we’re to take Beilein’s words literally, “slugs” would seem to be more appropriate for his team than “thugs,” given their recent level of play. Then again, it’s not as though people who generally throw the term “thugs” around in reference to black people are always being hyper-literal about the word’s definition, right?

All in all, it’s hard to believe that Beilein is a flaming, unapologetic racist, and would choose to spend his life coaching basketball. It’s far more logical to think he simply had a brain malfunction and the wrong word came out. But for some of his players, there now will be lingering doubt.

Yeah, a word came out that he didn’t want to come out — but is that because he actually thinks it and it simply escaped his lips by accident? We’ve already established some of his players don’t like him. This could be all the justification they need to validate their perspective.

The Cavs have said Beilein won’t be fired for the incident — but will it be all the cause necessary to cause players to further disengage?

Like I said, there will be fallout. Regardless of what’s in his heart.